September 14, 2014
Our National Anthem turns 200 years old today, September 14, 2014.
The year was 1814, and the United States had been in a war with Great Britain for two years. England’s attention had been mainly given to beating back Napoleon’s Army in Europe, and by April of 1814 they felt they finally had things in hand. This freed up soldiers and ships that could be used to advance British military goals in the United States, in what was becoming the Second War for Independence.
The British were still indignant about their defeat in the Revolutionary War by what they considered to be the “rag tag” Americans. Moreover, they were more recently incensed about an American attack on the British capital of Canada, York (now Toronto), where government buildings were burned.
The British were already using blockades in the Northeast to cut off trade coming in and out of Boston and other northeastern towns. Now the British plan was to add to their stranglehold by taking over the Chesapeake Bay area and then the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
On August 24, 1814, British Troops marched virtually unencumbered into Washington DC. As revenge for what American Troops had done in York, they set fire to the US Congress Building and the White House. They torched other buildings as well and that night the orange glow of the fire could be seen for miles away.
The next day however the most unusual set of circumstances unfolded. The sky grew dark and a dousing rain drenched the city, virtually putting the fire out. This heavy rain was followed by a windstorm the likes no inhabitant of the last 80 years had ever seen. It decimated the British line and killed more British troops than the Americans did in defending the city. In one situation, the wind collapsed a building and killed 30 British soldiers. (1)
For many in the city, this seemed to fit exactly what George Washington had said in his Inaugural Address, some twenty-five years before:
“No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States, Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.” (2)
At this point, you might think that the British might have some second thoughts about their plans.
But Baltimore was on their mind. Being the third largest city on the Eastern Seaboard, it was also suspected as being the biggest port of privateers on the East Coast.
The citizens knew that an attack was coming and they knew if Baltimore fell, that the whole East Coast also could fall.
General Armistead, age 34, the commander of Fort McHenry, had commissioned Mary Pickersgill, 38, and her 13 yr. old daughter (and some other women) to make two large flags for the fort. One was a 14 x 25 ft. storm flag, the other was a 30 x 42 ft. garrison flag.
In an act of great sacrifice, where liberty was more valued than livelihood, private citizens sank twenty ships to block the passage of British ships into the harbor. Pastors preached about freedom and liberty from their pulpits. Militiamen, mainly made up of church members, prepared for battle.
Finally, on Sunday Morning, September 11 during church services, the warning guns were fired, indicating that the enemy was on its way. The militia came out and prepared to defend the city. And like a Hollywood movie, rain began to fall and the storm flag was raised at Fort McHenry.
Prior to this, on September 6th, a young attorney named Francis Scott Key, age 35, had sailed out to the amassing British fleet to work out a prisoner exchange. He successfully accomplished the exchange, but with the attack on Baltimore pending, he was sequestered and kept on a British ship until the battle was finished. From there he watched with an anxious heart an all out aerial assault on Fort McHenry.
On the morning of Sept 13, at 6:30 a.m., the guns of the British ships awoke. Two hundred pound bombs, Congreve rockets, mortars and ordinances rained down on Ft. McHenry. All through the day and into the night, this firestorm raged.
Finally after twenty-five hours of bombing and over 1500 rounds had been shot, at around 7:30 a.m. on September 14th, the shelling stopped. Silence.
The Fort was hard to see amongst the fog and smoke. Where was the flag? Was it still there? There was nothing on the pole. Would a flag of surrender be hosted? Or a British flag indicating that the Fort was taken?
But then it came into view, the storm flag had been taken down, and the larger garrison flag had been hosted.
So amazed was Keys at the site of the flag that he took out an envelope from his pocket and on the back of it began to write a poem. The first stanza we know, because we now sing it as our national anthem and it has deep meaning for all citizens that love freedom and liberty. But there are a total of four stanzas in this national hymn and the last stanza goes deeper still. It even includes the phrase that became our national motto:
O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation;
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our Trust"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.(3)
Reflecting on this final stanza, the Battle of Fort McHenry can be seen in even a keener light. The rain that began to fall on Sept. 12 and continued into Sept. 13 softened the ground in and around the Fort and caused a higher number than average of bombs not to explode. Moreover, one bomb landed on the main gunpowder magazine in the Fort and did not go off (if it had, it would have done substantial damage to the fort and killed many men). And finally, the fact that just four men were lost in the twenty-five hour onslaught on the fort is simply astonishing. (4)
In closing, what can we take from this Anniversary remembrance of the Star Spangled Banner? I would like to suggest these seven things:
Each Generation must have leaders that step up and lead and a person is never too young to take up this role. Leaders need to be able to anticipate challenges to liberty and prepare a response.
Sacrifice is required to preserve liberty.
Courage must be maintained even when things are bleak.
Business leaders, pastors, homemakers, and youth are all needed in this fight.
Prayer and trusting God’s Providences are key to our national experience.
Stories of history and bravery must be taught and passed on to future generations.